Tuesday, 26 February 2019


New Juche Mountainhead (2016)
I had a feeling this one would be worth a look based on my already having been bowled over by Stupid Baby, but I've a hunch Mountainhead may even be the best thing I've ever read, if that can be considered a meaningful statement. New Juche is a man who likes big tits and masturbation. I like big tits and masturbation, but this guy really likes big tits and masturbation. He lives and works in south-east Asia, so you've probably already done the math even before we've reached the end of the sentence, and you would almost certainly be wrong.

The point at which I realised I didn't ever want to have conversations with western travellers again came months later, shortly before I moved to the mountain, when I told a female tourist in a bar about the experience with the Burmese woman. I was trying to be honest both for her benefit and perhaps to solicit some casual therapy, but she found me offensive, to a dangerous degree, and I immediately realised that all conversation was hopeless and deceitful. There is experience outside of language and ideas that you assume and allow for, if you're not a cunt.

Mountainhead communicates that experience, and if the words are familiar, the patterns they form may not be. The experience communicated might justifiably be termed shamanic and could certainly be reduced to getting in touch with nature, which is sort of funny given that those who traditionally respond to such tie-dyed phrases would probably be horrified by Mountainhead, and specifically they would be horrified by its honesty. In Westsiders: Stories of the Boys in the Hood, William Shaw wrote:

All music is about geography, in a way. It's either about the place in which it's made, or the place where the maker wants to be.

I'd extend this observation to art in general, and it's demonstrably true of Mountainhead which is at core an account of the author becoming part of his environment, something existing within the fabric rather than upon its surface.

I feel I'm being slowly gathered up by the fibres and essences of the forest, beckoned and cajoled by the leaves and scents, and chased by plagues sent to precede me and to show me the way. My own face looks down on me from the trunks of these dark trees, the moist branches I grab are my own sweaty cock and the fluids that splash on me are my own issue.

The qualities which distinguish this novel - mostly autobiographical so far as I'm able to tell, but allowing for visionary interludes - from all that other crap about finding oneself through shunning Hostess products in favour of some delicious nourishing kale and how we met this really amazing old guy half way up a mountain in Baja California, are the facts of it being more about losing oneself in merging with an environment, and the unflinching honesty by which all elements of that environment are described. All the sexual effluvia of spunk, saliva, blood, sweat, bacteria, all the smells fermenting within unsightly wrinkles are celebrated as part of the forest mulch from which everything here is grown, including even the misery, grinding poverty, and casual cruelty.

Sex, like religion and drinking and smoking, is tied profoundly to ideas about place. Sick animals who graduate to Asia for sex graduate at their own pace through a succession of categories and locations, with a very defensive certainty as to their current, particular category and location. There is cruelty in it from wherever you stand, I absolutely believe that.

As a whole, and particularly as one approaches the end, Mountainhead has an almost biblical rhythm, human sacrifice yielding an encounter with God - here manifest as a life size biro rendering of Hitler drawn in a toilet cubicle at a children's school, and you can tell he's a sacred Hitler due to the halo of dobbers around his head - leading to apotheosis either with or as the mountain, which is arguably the main character of the novel; and like all of the best writing, it manages to keep hold of its sense of humour without digging you in the ribs and grinning every five seconds like Douglas fucking Adams.

Of all the books I've read, Mountainhead most closely compares to T.J. Knab's similarly sweat drenched A War of Witches, which represents the same sort of environmental immersion but amongst rural Mexican witches rather than Thai prostitutes; and like Knab's book it leaves the reader subtly changed by an improved understanding of human existence. It probably isn't the best thing I've ever read, realistically speaking, but right now I'm having trouble thinking of anything which impressed me more.

Monday, 25 February 2019

I Shall Destroy All the Civilized Planets!

Fletcher Hanks
I Shall Destroy All the Civilized Planets! (2007)
You Shall Die by Your Own Evil Creation (2009)

I first became aware of Fletcher Hanks as a result of discussion on facebook, leading to online articles and my immediately recognising his style from the Tiger Hart strip in Planet Comics, as distinguished by characters with tiny heads on top of huge muscular bodies. Having discovered that there was more of this stuff to be had, I immediately knew that I needed it, for Hanks' work seemed to be the absolute distillation of everything I'd enjoyed about Planet Comics.

Fletcher Hanks, as Paul Karasik's introduction suggests, was never really an outsider artist despite the mythology. He took to writing and drawing his own comic strips at the very birth of the form in its modern sense, before the conventions of strip fiction were fully established. Additionally, it's worth remembering that the printing process and paper quality of Fantastic, Fight and other titles obliged artists to keep it bold and simple, nothing which would end up looking too scrappy on the page. Hanks' art is unusually stylised, but his flights of fancy are expanded from a powerful sense of realism and a keen eye for the solid form, with only a very occasional lapse of scale to muddy the waters; although admittedly his draughtsmanship is often eclipsed by the sheer weirdness of his work.

Hanks' audience required heroes of specific and direct type, men - and one woman - who have scrapes and adventures and who vanquish the bad guys. For the most part we have variations on Hugo Gernsback's science-hero as developed by E.E. 'Doc' Smith and others, and Fletcher Hanks' cast of characters are variations on this theme. Arguably the greatest is Stardust the Super Wizard, most likely created in response to Action's Superman. Stardust lives out in space, and his initial adventures mostly began with the reportage of some nefarious activity befalling New York revealed on his crime detecting space television. Each story therefore begins with a commute, but I suppose Stardust's living in outer space serves as a measure of how amazing he is more than anything. Stardust generally achieves victory by use of a seemingly endless variety of absurdly specific yet poorly defined rays which shrink, enlarge, render invisible, or otherwise effect an almost immediate resolution to whatever the problem may be, meaning we can get on with the closing pages of just desserts. Stardust comic strips typically spend half of their page count punishing the criminal by cruel and unusual means.

Someone on facebook recently described some noise act as a boy sat alone at the back of the class frantically scribbling scenes of wartime atrocity in the back of his exercise book, Stukas fly low strafing the crowd with bullets, blood everywhere… which is probably as good a description as any of the mood and intensity of Hanks' work. Biology is malleable, disembodied heads fly through the air, faces always seem to be turned away from the reader, fight scenes resemble ballet, and the image of objects and people mysteriously suspended in the sky occurs with surprising frequency; so while there's a touch of Basil Wolverton, it's Basil Wolverton in a landscape described by Giorgio de Chirico.

While Hanks characters tend to inhabit the same basic story, the variation of themes is surprisingly imaginative, and enough so as to demonstrate that this guy knew exactly what he was doing and was exploring the limitations of the form. Where Stardust has his special rays and extended scenes of urban poetic justice, Space Smith's adventures occur beyond the Earth and are much closer in spirit to E.E. 'Doc' Smith's Skylark of Space series. Big Red McLane follows the exploits of a stout-hearted lumberjack defending honest enterprise by punching racketeers and corporate criminals from rival companies without a special ray or mysterious transformation to be seen; and the skull-faced Fantomah mounts a supernatural assault on those evil forces who seek to control the jungle, whatever the hell that even means. Towards the close of Hanks' two year career in comics he had begun to expand here and there - Stardust defends Chicago rather than New York, then has adventures in space; Red McLane leaves the forest behind and travels to San Francisco in search of a childhood sweetheart; and then Fletcher Hanks simply stopped. He is described by his son as an angry, troubled man and a violent alcoholic, so I guess his own itinerant existence finally got the better of him.

This work seems fairly typical of its time on first glance, and a skim through an issue of Planet Comics leaves the definition of Fletcher Hanks as unique seeming less than clear cut; and yet the more of this stuff you read, the stranger and more beautiful it appears - or maybe arresting rather than beautiful. Hanks' work has the random swerves and dreamlike ambience of van Vogt and a few others, but in comic book form and quite clearly aimed at a younger audience. I'm tempted to consider him as something in the tradition of Shaver or Robert Moore Williams but that may be overthinking it a little, and I suspect Fletcher Hanks was driven more by impotent rage than schizophrenic philosophy. More than anything, it's hard not to wonder where Hanks would have gone had he kept at it; but I suppose had he been capable of such, he never would have possessed whatever quality it was that drove him to create works of such twisted majesty in the first place.

Tuesday, 19 February 2019

Dream Makers

Charles Platt (editor) Dream Makers (1980)
Well, this was a nice surprise - something added to an Amazon wish list way back whenever, mainly out of passing curiosity, then promptly forgotten until Santa saw fit to bring a copy forth from his mighty sack. Here Charles Platt - former art director for the Michael Moorcock version of New Worlds - travels around America, hangs out with a substantial cluster of big knobs of sixties and seventies science-fiction, and interviews them. It's mostly conversational, often illuminating, and does well to capture an era which seems to be slowly and unfortunately disappearing from the collective memory. There are a few writers whose work I wouldn't touch with yours, mate, but who nevertheless prove sufficiently fascinating to have me wishing I could work up the enthusiasm to read their books. Weirdly, A. E. van Vogt, whose work I find compelling, even fascinating, is about the only author who didn't have much of interest to say, possibly because he spent the time discussing his writing system with which I am already intimately familiar; but everyone else scores highly, even Asimov, and Moorcock's observations regarding the work of Larry Niven had me punching the air and barking ha! loud enough to scare the cat. Also, Brian Aldiss has gone up a little in my estimation, so that's nice.

Monday, 18 February 2019

Dan Dare - the 2000AD Years volume two

Chris Lowder, Gerry Finley-Day, Dave Gibbons & others
Dan Dare - the 2000AD Years volume two (2016)

Here's the rest of the Joe Strummer version of Dan Dare, namely the stuff which didn't fit in volume one. The collection is thus unfortunately lacking Bellardinelli's fascinatingly peculiar interpretation of the character and is therefore a little dry by comparison - not quite Jacob's crackers, but something in that direction. This version of Dare doesn't square too well with the original, which we can probably take as given and instead concentrate on what it does have going for it.

One thing it had going for it was that it seemed wild and original when I was thirteen, so the nostalgia compensates for what is now revealed as having been pretty thin. This volume divides mainly into the second half of the Lost Worlds storyline and Servant of Evil. Lost Worlds was an episodic Star Trek variant with more explosions and generic schoolboy nihilism, which works in places despite the limitations of the form, particularly the gorgeous full page splashes of Waterworld. Lost Worlds ends with a massive explosion because I guess they couldn't come up with a better resolution, following which an amnesiac Dare is recruited by the Mekon and so becomes a Servant of Evil. This storyline has been criticised for not going anywhere, then ceasing after umpteen weeks with the promise of a conclusion which never came; and while it suffers from some of the same conventions as Lost Worlds - and whoever thought of giving Dan a super powered glove and making him into the chosen one was obviously an idiot - it also seems to be an attempt to do something a bit more satisfying, even mythic, than yet another planet of slimies blown up every few weeks concluding with final panel puns based on which item of starship canteen fare is now banned due to a resemblance to whichever alien race has just been driven to judicious extinction. My guess is that Servant was an attempt to turn Dan into Star Wars, or thereabouts, and for the most part it sort of worked, or at least worked on me when I was thirteen, which I suppose is what mattered.

Tuesday, 12 February 2019

Fight Your Own War

Jennifer Wallis (editor) Fight Your Own War (2016)
This is a collection of essays on the subject of power electronics and noise music, which I'll admit I hadn't actually thought of as different and distinct things until reading this. I'll assume most of you understand what is meant by the terms power electronics and noise music, although maybe I'm assuming too much given the inclusion in this collection of an essay by some bloke from a group called Deathtripping seemingly aimed at those who've never heard of either and who presumably bought the book by accident. It's not about playing nice tunes on a guitar, our source helpfully reveals, and sometimes even though the noises you hear are unpleasant, they're also kind of interesting to listen to.

This extended statement of the bleeding obvious isn't the only thing letting the side down. There's also an essay on the Finnish power electronics scene which is actually just a very long list converted into prose by insertion of linking terminology such as and then or meanwhile in Helsinki; and there's a review of someone's album which proposes that whilst Black Sabbath and the like merely referred to dark forces in their music, the music of Psychic TV and others actually feature dark forces from beyond the veil, because ghosts and ghoulies definitely really exist; there's an unusually repetitive essay on how audiences react to live performance which says the same thing over and over and reads like an Alan Partridge monologue; and then - oh happy day - there's Streicher, named after Julius Streicher, much misunderstood editor of Der Stürmer.

As in many forms of media today, licence was taken to endorse and drive home a political opinion in accordance with the prevailing ideology. During the war he held no rank within the NSDAP, no military position, and participated in no killings. His sole 'crime', it seemed to me, was to publicly promulgate a vision which, in the witch-hunt atmosphere of immediate post-war Nuremberg, was not going to be tolerated.

I suppose the prevailing ideology to which our boy refers would have been that of the politically correct types who shut down the concentration camps and put everyone out of a job. Being a fully grown man, I'm old enough to understand that the politics of the art may be quite different to those of the artist, and that they may be proposed in furtherance of some point other than that which they appear to say; but if you're able to use the term witch-hunt in context of the prosecution of Nazi war criminals, basically you're a massive fucking cock regardless of whether you actually believe your own propaganda. Smirking it's just nihilism innit doesn't really make much difference, and neither do claimed philosophical credentials when said philosophy is expressed on a level of sophistication equivalent to your average motivational meme garnished with a few mentions of Baudrillard just so we know you've read him. Furthermore, whilst the notion of destroying the status quo of consensus reality by offending it into submission may be all well and good, when those transgressive things we're supposedly not allowed to think are actually being said out loud on national television to a daily schedule by those in government, you probably need to have a word with yourself, you complete fucking plum.

These objections aside, and that a couple of the contributors can't actually write, most of the collection is pretty decent - informative, thought provoking, genuinely interesting and illuminating as you would hope. Particularly welcome were those essays addressing various elephants in rooms by Spencer Grady and Sonia Dietrich, and I found Grady's likening a Sutcliffe Jugend performance to Benny Hill particularly satisfying.

The sense of historical detail is a little sketchy, and I could have stood to read a little more about at least Con-Dom and the Grey Wolves, but the broad focus is probably inevitable with this sort of collection. Furthermore, the inclusion of material by Streicher's Ulex Xane arguably serves as a refutation of his position, whatever it may be, so taken as a whole it might be argued that the collection documents without editorial comment, or without strong editorial comment, as is often claimed of the extreme imagery favoured by certain proponents of the genre; and best of all, unlike certain other laboured histories of supposedly industrial music, this one has been written by those who were actually there and can thus be taken as authoritative by some definition. As stated, I have problems with parts of it but that comes with the territory, and all which Fight Your Own War gets right greatly eclipses the negative.

Monday, 11 February 2019

The Bell from Infinity

Robert Moore Williams The Bell from Infinity (1968)
The plot thickens, as the cliché would have it: another Robert Moore Williams novel lives up to my expectations whilst further cementing an impression of the man as an overlooked visionary, additionally adding a few more of his recurring themes to the list of those I've begun to look out for.

Firstly there's the music heard across the full span of creation, also featured in The Sound of Bugles which I assume to have ended up rewritten as King of the Fourth Planet. Although there's nothing to specifically identify this trope as akin to the trumpet blasts of Revelation, its difficult to miss the parallel - or at least I found it so. Here we have a sound which resonates from within a vast diamond, seemingly the jewel in the crown of our reality, to which the title refers and which possesses both people and objects, causing them to dance uncontrollably; and once again we find ourselves in the tunnels of a labyrinthine underworld, and specifically mines - a setting that I now recall featured in Beachhead Planet. It seems safe to assume that mineworkers are one of his things, possibly combining a subterranean fixation with a tendency to fill his books with blue collar types bordering on frontiersmen, the grizzled characters from westerns who also featured in The Star Wasps. Perry Chapdelaine's 2014 memorial to Williams accordingly describes the writer as an affirmed populist who was quite happy to be labelled a pulp author due to his strong dislike of literary science-fiction, which probably explains the suggestion of these being people you would encounter in a saloon.

Anyway, again we have a distinctly surreal novel which feels profoundly allegorical, even if whatever Williams was scrabbling at was maybe a little too personal, rooted in his own unique psychology, to fully translate into anything more than a general impression of a call for mankind to unite against its own worst tendencies. Williams' prose is occasionally clumsy or awkward, and the narrative twists and winds, seemingly following its own internal logic, yet for a pulp author, this guy weaves a mood seemingly unique to his own books - albeit one which stands some comparison to van Vogt's weirder efforts - and his more ponderous passages can be strikingly beautiful, even poetic. I continue to find myself impressed.

Tuesday, 5 February 2019

Null-A Three

A.E. van Vogt Null-A Three (1985)
I'm struggling to find anything to say about this one that I didn't already say about The Pawns of Null-A back in September. Null-A Three is the third and final part of what became a series following the exploits of Gilbert Gosseyn, a non-Aristotelian detective whose adventures serve as a platform from which van Vogt evangelised at length about Korzybski's General Semantics; and I still fail to see what's so special about General Semantics or that it amounts to anything more profound than not judging books by their covers.

'Hey—' excitedly— 'is that what you mean by an assumption? You didn't see it yourself. So you have to assume that people who did see it, are giving you the facts?'

'That's part of it. But the assumptions you should really be interested in are those that you've got sitting deep down inside, and you don't notice that they're there, or what they are. But in life situations you act as if they're true.'

See, this seems obvious to me, but I suppose the results of the last presidential election speak for themselves regarding assumptions and gullibility. From the viewpoint of the reader, my problem is that it's hard to really see how Gosseyn's ability to distinguish between map and territory really gives him any advantage, which leaves van Vogt to bang on about something with seemingly negligible influence on the thrust of the narrative, and it all starts to sound a little like Tom Cruise.

Being a Scientologist, when you drive past an accident, it's not like anyone else, it's, you drive past, you know you have to do something about it. You know you are the only one who can really help. That's what drives me.

You know you are the only one who can really help? More so than the emergency services? The only one? Really?

'You haven't noticed anything?'

Gosseyn had already done a swift, mental survey of his actions since awakening; and so General Semantics did something for him now, when the direct question was asked: He had no need to re-examine what had already been evaluated. He simply shook his head.

Sounds like an assumption to me, but never mind. I think what van Vogt is trying to get at here is something closer to the weirder end of quantum theory, but it's unfortunately not very well expressed.

It was an event in space-time so colossal that, finally, it seemed to him only that General Semantics could offer a conditional answer. With that thought, he said, carefully, 'There is a possibility that at the base the universe is a seeming, not a being; and that if, by any means that seemingness is triggered, the nothingness momentarily asserts. During such a split-instant, distance has no meaning.

The fact of Gilbert Gosseyn being a single individual apparently inhabiting multiple bodies must figure in there somewhere, but this detail feels more like a typically peculiar science-fiction trope than part of whatever van Vogt was trying to describe.

Nevertheless, Null-A Three begins well with Gosseyn feeling his way through an unfamiliar environment, and van Vogt telling only half of the story so as to leave us guessing. This third iteration of Gosseyn wakes in the court of a society ruled over by a boy king, whom he engages by thinking outside the box with a challenge to see which of them can hold their breath the longest. Then follows a brief hint at van Vogt's views on sexuality - whatever the hell they were by this point - in terms of the boy king's royal mother, something about the two of them going into a room for about an hour and locking the door mutter mumble…

Sadly, after about a hundred admittedly moderately gripping pages of this, I lost my way, and spent the rest of the book struggling to get a grip on what the hell was happening and why - which tends to be a common problem with van Vogt.

The Nose

Nikolai Gogol The Nose (1836)
A man goes into a cafe and orders a bread roll. When the roll arrives, he discovers a foreign object within, specifically a human nose. Elsewhere, an academic gentleman realises that his own nose is missing, leaving just smooth, blank skin at the centre of his face. The nose is seen about town, dressed as an official, somehow passing itself off as a person and acquiring quite a reputation. Eventually it returns to our guy's face.

The story is riddled with inconsistencies, not least being how the nose in the bread roll figures in any of this, and of course the issue of scale; but that's because it's a story, for fuck's sake. It can do what the hell it likes. Gogol says as much himself in wrapping up the tale with an admission that he doesn't actually understand any of it, adding that it seems absurd, but then daily life is itself absurd. In directly addressing the reader as part of a tale of nebulous reality, Gogol might be seen as foreshadowing all sorts of stuff more recent and more familiar to members of this congregation, but then again, it was 1836, so maybe it's simply that the novel was yet to settle into its current habit of pretending to present a window on reality with author as no more than the individual cranking the handle of the projector.

Either way, I really have to read more by this guy. I'm not even sure why I'm only getting around to it now at the age of fifty-three.